Knovel technical reference information service

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Knovel's technical reference information service, available since September through Adept Scientific, is an online catalogued library system aimed at engineers and applied scientists.

These days, any subscription portal has to justify itself against the ever swelling volume of freely available material on the open web, accessible through various general and specific search engines. Knovel does so by offering a large number of full text sources from a variety of publishers and other organisation, in one place, through a single purpose-designed interface, supplemented by useful ancillary facilities. A subscription doesn't just replicate the physical resources with a saving on storage space, access efficiency, updating, and so on, it represents several layers of value added too.

Entry into the system presents in a browser the first layer of the catalogue as manageable number of main subject area headings – 20 of them at the time of writing this, from Adhesives, Coatings, Sealants & Inks through to Textiles – which are also the subscription subdivisions. Each of these headings can be opened up through a left-hand button to show a list of subheadings (Earth Sciences, for example, yielding seven subheads from General Reference to Paleontology & Stratigraphy) or clicked to display a full list of available titles. In the Earth Sciences example, clicking on the main heading gives a list of 73 titles while the Palaeontology & Stratigraphy subhead offers a shorter list of nine.

For a given title in the lists, hovering over the left-hand button pops up a short summary bubble while clicking on it drops down a fuller version. Picking, for the purpose of illustration, Fennel and Neumann's Introduction to the Modelling of Marine Ecosystems (2004, Oxford: Elsevier) responds to a further click with a full table of contents. Title details and citation open in new pop up boxes (citation generating a full reference, including page numbers, all ready for inclusion in a paper or report) while front matter, preface, table of contents, each individual chapter, bibliography, index and list of figures are accessed by a further click as PDF documents.

A useful touch is that material not available to you on your subscription can still be found – just not read. This gives opportunity to extend the subscription, to seek other ways (buying the paper form, perhaps) of accessing the particular resource, or just be aware of what exists around the available material.

As an alternative to browsing through the tree, there are two levels of search: basic and fielded. Basic is familiar from most search engines, but allows specification of scope – full Knovel library or just those works included in your subscription, for example, full text or just a section like table of contents, all subjects or a particular top level area.

Fielded search is a more focused tool. Search terms are assembled from category (keyword being the default, but there are about 45 alternatives; I'm presently searching looking at stoichiometric properties), field name (I've selected volume-to-mass ratio), operator (is, is not null, and others as appropriate) and a value which, depending on context, may or may not involve units - on which more below. One of the most interesting ability to search by value range, perhaps specifying a VTMR of between 110 and 127 (which takes me straight to table 16.1 in Kutz and Myers' Mechanical Engineers' Handbook - Energy and Power, 2006: Wiley). The possible range is, where appropriate, shown below the entry boxes.

Such tables are not static; it can be interrogated and manipulated as if it were in a spreadsheet. Graphs are similarly interactive, with a live equation plotter and extraction of data. Both allow export of content to your own real local spreadsheet for further analysis.

On the side bar are a periodic table of the elements and a units converter, but neither (though useful in themselves) are much needed during the process of reference because the data concerned are integrated into search and result. Having chosen units for a search, results are found and reported in those units regardless of how they may be stored in the text – very useful for European users whose answers lie in US sources or, of course, vice versa. For some users, this alone would easily justify subscription.

I used my guest reviewer's subscription to Knovel as a live resource in several real checking and research tasks, including background for two SCW articles, and was greatly impressed.

Free 30-day trials are available, with an opportunity to establish the best licensing strategy for a particular context before committing to specific subscriptions.